Call of the Wilde: Special K
The home opener to the Montreal Canadiens season and the sentiment was livelier after three of a possible four points in Toronto and Pittsburgh — two of the toughest places to play in the league.
The Los Angeles Kings in town with the opening ceremonies celebrating the 1993 Stanley Cup — the last cup champions to come from Canada a shockingly long 25 years ago.
The Kings without their number one goaltender Jonathan Quick were forced to start Jack Campbell. The short view had little to cheer for with the Habs being shutout, but the long view had plenty to cheer for as Jesperi “Special K” Kotkaniemi shone again
WATCH: Call of the Wilde — Habs Season Opener
Paul Byron continues to be among the best Habs this season. Early first period and Byron is absolutely a rocket down the ice against Alec Martinez. It’s a 100-foot race for the puck and Byron starts two strides behind the Kings rearguard and finishes four strides ahead of him. The shift eventually earns a power play on the back of the stunning speed of Byron. I would love to see a McDavid race against Byron one-on-one for 100 feet. I’m sure everyone will say McDavid would win easily, but I am not that sure.
Noah Juulsen is an NHL rookie. It’s hard to remember that watching him but he played fewer than 25 games last season. He’s a remarkably composed rookie. Juulsen is maturing at a rapid pace. His decision making is already so strong. If he continues to develop at this level, there is no way that Juulsen is not a top four defender. He might already be a top four defender on a strong NHL team, not just the Habs. He takes the body when it’s right to. His vision is better than advertised as well, and he makes a strong first pass often. Juulsen is a foundation piece on the right side of the blue line for the next decade.
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Marc Bergevin takes a lot of heat and deservedly so considering the drop the club had in the standings last season, but he also made some terrific moves in 2018. Mike Reilly is one for sure. Reilly came over from the Minnesota Wild for a paltry fifth-round draft choice. Reilly was the best defenseman in camp and he continues to play solidly in the regular season. Reilly with an early first period breakaway. Doesn’t seem possible for a defender, but he saw the opportunity and took it. That’s confidence, but it’s also talent. You can’t make that play unless you have the wheels to jump up and the wheels to get back after. Reilly isn’t shying away from the physical either making him a really important piece on the left side that the Habs had to have this season if they hope to compete.
Max Domi is playing with a lot of confidence. He has an active stick. He wants the puck. If it doesn’t come to him, he goes and gets it. This is a player who is “feeling it” as they say. Domi has a tremendous work-rate. He could stand to shoot more, but perhaps that will come with even more confidence. This type of work-rate is infectious. The road to rating a trade is a long run, but early advantage to the Habs. You might want to excuse Galchenyuk for being injured, listed as week-to-week with a lower-body injury, but that is actually the story of his career. Some players get injured a lot, and if you can trade them away, you always win a trade when the other player is not actually ever putting in a full season. We will see, but when the deal was made I loathed it. As it stands now, it might just be a Bergevin win. We shall know better in the fullness of time, but you can’t like Galchenyuk’s game in the weight room rehabbing.
WATCH: Call of the Wilde: Habs impress in first game
The kid just makes things happen. Jesperi Kotkaniemi shouldn’t be able to find this much success. It really is quite a story. He was, at only 18 years of age, not even on the radar as a first rounder at this time last year. It was easy to predict that the big bodies of the Kings would be too much for the young Finn and he would look out of his element in the home opener. Instead, he won his share of face-offs and took four shots in the first period alone. In the second period, he dangled around the net to create one of the best chances for the Habs in the contest. In the third period, he was the best player on the ice. He was making “wow” plays that lesser players couldn’t convert or prepare for. The good thing is he is the most creative Habs player. The bad thing is — in only his third NHL game — he shouldn’t be the most creative Habs player. The coaching staff is no doubt looking for the moment that he shows that he can’t handle it, but that moment is certainly not here yet. In fact, he might be gaining strength from game to game. Don’t forget the Habs don’t have to choose his future after game nine. That’s the game that the entry-level-contract year gets used up, but it is game 39 that the player moves one year closer to unrestricted free agency. So for those people who think game nine is the magic moment, it really isn’t that vital if a player advances a year on his first entry-level-contract. What’s more important is when he advances towards unrestricted status. I can see him moving forward beyond game nine at this point.
READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Opening night
They keep telling me that Jordie Benn is playing better. That’s what they say. I know this because I keep reading it. So about that second goal: Benn was doing pirouettes trying to check someone effectively. Not only did he have a problem initially when he lost his check, then he went to the front of the net and didn’t get his check there either. I’ve said for a long time, the issue with the Habs is the third pair. It’s going to be extremely hard to shield whoever is on it. The third pair has to get some minutes at least. You can’t keep them off the ice completely. Whether it be Benn, or Xavier Ouellet who was on for the second goal also not finding a man to cover. Second period and Benn has lost his man again leading, so he is forced to cross-check leading to a Kings power play as they tried to put the game out of reach. It also may be Karl Alzner, or it could be David Schlemko on the third pair. It could be four different players on the third pair. It doesn’t matter — none of these players are quality. On a good NHL defence, they’re not on the roster. When Shea Weber gets back into the line-up, the hole won’t be so significant as the third pair will have at least one quality player on it as Weber pushes into the leadership position logging 30 minutes when he’s healthy. I maintain that the GM has to trade someone on the wing where the Habs are stacked to get a top four defender if possible. This is a hard trade to make though. Wing is the least important position on the ice and they usually don’t fetch a top four D unless they are a very high-quality winger. That’s the goal for Bergevin anyway. They need to shore up the blue line, especially the left side.
Some nights the issue is going to be how poor the chances that the Habs are getting. They can be around the net a lot, and seem to have plenty of opportunities, but the truth is there is a considerable lack of finish in the line-up. That they struggled that hard to score against the Kings didn’t say that much about goalie Jack Campbell, who looked shaky, but the quality of the finish against him. This will be a popular theme this season. They’ll have to get a lot of chances to score. Watch for the shooting percentage that the Habs have during the season. It will be in the bottom third. The club will also struggle to score on the power play especially until Weber returns. The opposition penalty killers simply give the Habs the point shot teasing them to let it go from 50 feet, and there’s no one there who has the goods to deliver and punish them for that strategic choice. I expect the Habs power play to vastly improve with Weber back, not because he will get 15 goals, but because opponents will have to at least cover him which of course will leave other options open.
The Habs are going to have some roster issues soon, and it will be very interesting to see how they handle them. The club will have too many healthy bodies in a couple of weeks and when they do, they have to decide whether they believe some of their youth can still become great hockey players. The usual move would be to send Jacob De La Rose and Nikita Scherbak down to the minors hoping they would not be claimed on waivers by other clubs looking to strengthen their forward position. Scherbak is a first-round draft choice and De La Rose is a second-round pick. Both players are on the cusp of figuring out what it means to be an NHLer player, but neither has blossomed yet. If they keep the youngsters, then they have to send down some veterans.
This means that Tomas Plekanec and/or Alzner would find themselves in the minors which considering their contracts and status, it would seem, on the surface, unusual. However, both would no doubt clear waivers and not cost the club any future. In fact, if Alzner were claimed on the waiver wire, this would practically be Christmas for GM Marc Bergevin as he would lose a difficult and expensive contract considering the return Alzner is providing. The Habs could certainly afford to put Plekanec and Alzner in the minors as they are not up against the salary cap in any meaningful way. For me, the move is to keep the youthful players still hoping that they can find their better selves. Every one of the players in question — Scherbak, De La Rose, Deslauriers, Alzner, Benn, Plekanec — are all the same class of player: fringe. So if you have to lose someone, then lose someone who has no chance of getting better in the future. The worst thing would be to see Scherbak scoring 20 goals a season for another team. He does have the talent for it, but he just hasn’t put it together yet. For the GM, he’ll likely go the predictable route hoping he can avoid losing the youthful players on waivers when he sends them down. It’s going to be interesting, then again, there are so many injuries in hockey that there might be more injuries before Bergevin ever even has to make the difficult roster decision. On verra.
WATCH: Call of the Wilde: How are the new Habs prospects doing?
Weber is due back from knee surgery in mid-December, yet he skated before practice on Thursday for the Canadiens. Weber wasn’t there to skate with the intention of playing. He was just there to skate, so he could be a part as captain to symbolically light the ice with the torch for the opening ceremonies. It was interesting to note watching Weber move as well as he did during the morning that you certainly did not think you were looking at a player who needs more than two months still to get healthy for a hockey game. Certainly, not saying there is any inside knowledge here, but in also being around hockey for 35 years, I believe that I certainly was not looking at a player who needs 70 more days to recuperate from injury. I am going to guess more like 45 days for Weber’s return. The Habs could sure use their captain and best defender. Remember that my future right side of the blue line has Weber, Juulsen and Josh Brook. Jeff Petry is traded for another piece, preferably a left side defender.
Not a strong start for Max Pacioretty in Las Vegas. The Golden Knights appear to be having a hangover after the shock of last season. They are one and four on the year after getting dumped in Pittsburgh. In the five games, Pacioretty has one goal and no helpers. He is also -3 on the year. Poor Max though. The guy can’t catch a break on his line at centre. He finally gets a top quality centreman to play with and he barely gets a game in with Paul Stastny as he is injured. In the meantime for the Habs, Tatar is playing good minutes, the second rounder awaits, and Nick Suzuki is more than a point per game player in Owen Sound of the OHL. This could be an outstanding trade for the Habs. Again, we will only know in the fullness of time but chapter one is looking like a good book to read.
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